1960s Counterculture, Dark Shadows, and New Mythologies

I have been reading a number of book on the historical and cultural context of the 1960s counter-culture in American, and one of the books I have found helpful and relevant to this blog's context is Robert Ellwood's The 60s Spiritual Awakening: American Religion Moving from Modern to Postmodern (Rutgers University Press, 1994). Ellwood includes a number of illustrations in the text that he refers to as "counterpoints." Two of them caught my attention as they relate to popular culture.

The first is titled "Dark Shadows and People in the Shadows." It refers to the television series Dark Shadows that ran on daytime television from 1966-1971 and which involved a fictional family known as the Collinses and which included active involvement with the supernatural. Ellwood writes that this clan was "involved in everything that made up the Sixties spiritual counterculture," including astrology, time-travel, and the appropriation of Gothic horror themes. Ellwood attributes the shows success, in part, to "its enactment of archetypal images," and that the show "reflected a widespread worldview emerging in reaction against the rationalism" of the establishment culture in a shift toward "magical mystery theater." Ellwood places this within a cultural milieu of "postmodern neoromantic subjectivism."

A little later in the book Ellwood includes another "counterpoint," and one titled "New Mythologies, Easy Rides in Space and Time." This piece looks at the religious or spiritual significance of science fiction and fantasy in the late 1960s and quotes Michel Butor to the effect that "science fiction is 'the normal form of mythology of our time.'" Ellwood discusses "the creation of new mythologies from the fabrics of science fiction and fantasy," and he notes the "time of shifting religious imagination" of the Sixties "may yet turn out to be among the most far-reaching developments of the decade."

I find all of this discussion, and its cultural context of the 1960s counter-culture, of great interest as it connects with a previous post of mine on the Sci Fi Boys program where I raised the question as to what cultural and social forces might be at play in the large numbers of young males in the late 1950s through the 1970s who connected deeply with science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Along with Ellwood, I'd suggest that the religious milieu of this location and time period was formative and significant in terms of the significance of these genres as the containers for the creation of new myths and the expressions of archetypal images.

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There are 3 Comments to "1960s Counterculture, Dark Shadows, and New Mythologies"

  • philjohnson says:


    Perhaps the period from the 1950s-70s needs to be appreciated on several levels.

    1. The cultural clash between Marxism and Capitalism in the Cold War provides a large template onto which much story-telling could be understood. If you recall the animation of Marvin the Martian and Daffy Duck in their quest to control Planet X, this combined space exploration with the basic capitalist vs Marxist clash and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons in the 1950s.

    2. Consider also that this period has an accelerated expansion in home-technology (TVs etc) as the emerging medium for storytelling in the 1950s-60s. In part it could be compared/contrasted to the storytelling of the cinema of the same period, especially in the gothic and sci-fi.

    3. The countercultural "rejection" of the GI-Joe generation's work ethic allowed for much experimentation in so many directions: psychedelic drugs and mystical experiences, the anti-war protests against the Vietnam conflict, 60s UK innovation in rock-pop music, the opening up Asian migration to the West (and with it the transference of gurus). It was in the 1960s that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings became a counterculture classic.

    4. The various cycles through which gothic material goes can be piggy-backed onto whatever is happening in the wider culture especially on the "big" questions. If we recall that the 19th century gothic stuff appeared at the same time as Darwinian theory arose. Detective fiction and horror stories abounded about "mad scientists" and "crazy doctors" conducting weird experiments on humanity: Island of Dr Moreau, Frankenstein, Dracula, Invisible Man, and various "evil" doctors who appeared in Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. The question: "what is man?" was important in light of Darwinian ideas. The gothic material foreshadowed a bothersome kind of human future if science was not held accountable. There are also the perennial points that generally the gothic material raises age-old motifs about mortality and immortality. The vampire figure obtains immortality "illegally" when compared to the Christian narrative about resurrection and judgment.

    Although vampires have to some extent undergone rehabilitation (e.g. Blade and Angel characters), the resurging interest has coincided with new scientific riddles: cloning, stem-cell research, embryo-experiments, nanotech.

    Alternate visions of the future are sometimes "debated" in the gothic material. While the archetypal construct about fantasy literature/stories is certainly shaped a great deal by the pervasive influence of Jungian ideas. Of course another element is the way in which James G Frazer fiddled with mythology and analogies in myths in The Godlen Bough. Although his work has long since been discarded in anthropology and religious studies, his ideas have become popularised in some many areas. I think that the popularisation of his work can be seen in the original Star Trek series, for example, but it could repay further study to see how far his fingerprints may be detected in the counterculture era.

    Of course understanding this cultural and theoretical backdrop is very helpful in the development of a deep cultural apologetic dialogue and in exploring new vistas for missional activity with niche interests in fantasy etc.

  • Jon Trott says:


    Wow, that Barnabas Collins pic you featured instantly drew my attention. Though my interest in horror as a genre stopped promptly in my late teens (for reasons I cannot explain), I absolutely loved Dark Shadows, running home from school in order not to miss it. I in fact wrote my own vampire stories -- pretty bad ones, but interestingly pre-christian, as my vampires were horrified at their own blood-drinking behavior and one at least committed vampire-suicide by dashing out into bright sunlight.

    At any rate, Jonathan Frid's Barnabas Collins character was awesome. I ended up, largely because of Dark Shadows I think, in those early teen years tackling the unedited Dracula (Bram Stoker's gothic novel) as well as every Edgar Allen Poe story that existed. I memorized the Tell-tale Heart.

    Then, somewhere in that general time frame, I read Kafka's The Trial . And that story was so terrifying (in its obvious and hidden dimensions) that I think I became too fearful any longer for horror stories. I turned into an existentialist instead! Hehehehehe...

    Blessings, and please keep posting here and on your other blog. I'm just knocked out by your recent posts.


  • [...] In a previous blog post I commend on Robert Ellwood’s observations of the influence of the “occult [...]

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